A Working Class Hero is Something to Be: Attaullah Khan Niazi ‘Issakhelvi’

Working Class Hero

Working Class Hero

I have written about Attaullah Khan Niazi ‘Issakhelvi’ in an earlier post. Since blasting out of the rural district of Mianwali (ancestral home of cricket king Imran Khan) in the 1970s and 80s, Attaullah Khan has lit up the Pakistani music scene like few before him.  His audience is distinctly South Asian, whether on the sub-continent, or in the diaspora.  More specifically, the Punjabi and Seraiki speaking communities adore this man’s music, which comes directly from the heart and plays on the holy trinity of themes of South Asian mohabbat  (love): intimate, lost and longed for.


Sher Shah Suri

Sher Shah Suri

The Niazis are a tribe of the larger ethnic group known as the Pathans.  Originally from the  Eastern regions of what is now Afghanistan over the centuries the Niazis, migrated eastward into what are now known as NWFP and Punjab provinces of Pakistan.  The history of the Niazis, is an interesting one. Related to the Afghan nobles, Sher Shah Suri and the house of the Lodhis, they trace their geneaology  to the grand patriarch of all Pathans, Qais Abdur Rashid, who in turn claimed direct descent from the Biblical Israelite King Saul.


Indeed, many Pathans, and many Niazis too, persist in a rather odd (considering contemporary global political realities) claim that they are one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel.

While historically dubious, elaborate histories have been constructed in an attempt to provide evidence of what assumes is regarded as a special and meritorious ancient identity.


Attaullah Khan Niazi

Attaullah Khan Niazi

Whether Attaullah Khan believes this legend or not, I don’t know. And who cares? I just thought it was interesting to mention by way of illustration of the unexpected twists and turns of history.  Essakhelvi himself was born (1951) with a love of music, though coming from a tough, martial tribe, ‘singer’ was not a career one spent much time talking about in public.  Indeed, the secret of his music lessons and practice eventually came to the knowledge of his family and he was disowned.  On his own, Attaullah had enough presence of mind though, to complete a basic education and graduate from high school.


When he was 21 he got a chance to sing on Radio Pakistan (Bahawalpur Center) and a popular TV variety show Neelam Ghar.  Though his family still refused to embrace him, he persisted, and in the late 70’s/early 80s was performing for homesick Punjabis in the UK.  Back in Pakistan his fame washed over the country, thanks to a new and affordable technology, the cassette tape.  His live shows, one of which I attended on a cold winter evening in Islamabad, were always very lively.  Khan’s approach to singing is straightforward: sing your bloody heart out and wear your emotions on your sleeve.  He eggs his audience on with sly turns of phrase and exaggerated moans and sighs and quickly heads to the very top of his vocal range where he remains for most of the song.  In combination, these ornaments have the effect of driving his audience, (mostly lower and middle class working men) towards ecstasy.


Having said all that, he does have a very nice voice and knows how to use it.  While he is best loved for his upbeat, jaunty numbers, when he turns his attention to a ghazal or a folky interpretation, his voice is just as expressive and moving.  


His FB page claims “He has recorded more than 40,000 songs in 7 different languages.”   For your listening pleasure I’ve selected just 13 of those songs and three languages to share with you today.  The selection covers some early folk songs (Balo Batiyaan Way Mahi) from Pakistan TV where he (and so many others) got his first mass exposure, through a couple of the big hits  (Ni Uthan Wale Tur,Aankh Mein Naqsh-e-Jannat), to a recent appearance on the famous and fabulous Coke Studio Show (Pyaar Naal). 


The title of the selection refers to the opening number Isa Khel Door te Nahin (Isa Khel is Not Far Away).  There was a period of about 20 years, before King MP3, when every long haul truck, every interstate bus, every local taxi, every wagon (mini-bus) that plied the roads of Pakistan had, not just one, but several tapes of Attaullah Khan Niazi, or simply, Issakhelvi, in the glove box. 


Get ready for it!


Track Listing:

01 Isa Khel Door te Nahin

02 Nain Marjaane

03 Ni Uthan Wale Tur

04 Khol Surahi Pyare Saqi

05 Aankh Mein Naqsh-e-Jannat

06 Chimta Taan Wajda

07 Yeh Bahar ke Zamana

08 Dard to Rukhne ka Ab Naam Nahi Leta

09 Taud ke Dil Pachtana Kaisa

10 Pyaar Naal

11 Balo Batiyaan Way Mahi

12 Bismillah Karan

13 Tumhare Shehr ka Mausam





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